Best Album of 2014

Image credit: PitchFork

Best Album of 2014

Ben Frost puts a lot of thought into his music, technically and conceptually. His song titles and interviews pack his dense, throbbing scrawls with allusions to everything from biochemistry to Ghostbusters. This is somewhat ironic, as the main capacity of his music is to overwhelm rational thought. It registers in the limbs and viscera, not in the mind. On A U R O R A, mostly recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Frost mostly jettisons the guitars and classical instruments of prior albums, though standout deep cut “Sola Fide” does sound like a catastrophic collision between chamber music and a rave. Instead, he doubles down on heavy synths and heaving drums courtesy of powerhouses such as Greg Fox (Liturgy), Thor Harris (Swans), and Shahzad Ismaily. The result has a rough but elaborate physical presence—something huge and shuddering running on filthy kerosene, about to snap a belt or throw a bolt and maim the operator. But Frost is never overpowered by his brawny, chaotic material. However strong it is, his will is stronger, and gales of distortion bend to his command with clarity and definition. His prior marquee album, 2009’s By the Throat, was excellent but less single-minded in its pursuit. This is the one that really grabs you and doesn’t let go. —Brian Howe

Lots of indie bands have mined the giddiness and sexual empowerment of the disco era, but few have tapped into the cultural fracture that followed it. The language of identity crisis is all over Mr Twin Sister’s second album, right down to the fact that they added a “Mr” to their name for this self-released sophomore effort (and then named the album after their newly christened selves). Mr Twin Sister is slicker, sexier, a little more concerned with mortality (the band endured a serious van accident in 2013), and the quintet’s lyrics often chase several possible threads: On “Out of the Dark”, singer Andrea Estella declares that “I am a woman, but inside I’m a man, and I want to be as gay as I can!” A minute later, she looks back and wonders: “What ever happened to poor, dear me?”

Mr Twin Sister are also adept at following the trickle-down of commonalities between house, electro, and new wave (especially on “Rude Boy”, which suggests a shared lineage with Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”). And like any honest survey of nightlife music, Mr Twin Sister’s high highs (“In The House of Yes”, “Twelve Angels”) are followed quickly by low lows (“Blush”, “Crime Scene”)—the two sides of the same airy fantasy. —Abby Garnett

In a year full of social and political upheaval, you have to wonder about the role of electronic music in the grand scheme. Being largely instrumental, the genre isn’t exactly primed to deliver clear and direct messages outside of its own context, let alone fiery missives or storm-bringing manifestos for a general populous to rally around. But electronic music can still serve vital purposes during tumultuous times of desperation and discontent. Perhaps most readily, it can provide a much needed escape for our troubled minds, though it can also reflect the boiling unrest within our hearts. Chris Clark’s self-titled seventh album, 45 minutes of vivid atmosphere and controlled chaos, managed to do exactly both. —Patric Fallon

Dude Incredible is an honest representation of gifted musicians playing punk rock together with patient breath and coiled abandon. The bass, drums, guitar, and vocals each end up being showcased on their own at various points on the album, and each might rightly be described as the “lead” instrument; the songs are magnanimous and co-operative because, after more than 20 years of making records together, the seasoned team managing them trusts each other like brothers. The lyrics, often presented in unaffected, tuneful speech or guttural screaming, convey incisive, comedic, and thoughtful ruminations on the following: human interaction and behavior; fighting; vandalism; political machinations and opportunistic/piss-poor leadership; looking at things and being looked at by things; and at least one dispute about the conclusion of an instance of sexual intercourse. To paraphrase a line from the title track, all of Shellac’s records are fit, but some of them are spectacular. Dude Incredible is definitely the latter—a lean batch of nine intriguing, blood-pumping songs that tromp, clatter, and ring out like nothing else ever could. —Vish Khanna

Ariana Grande was unstoppable this year. The former Nickelodeon star conquered the radio, the charts, the tabloids, the TV circuit, and the meme factories, ascending from Victoria Justice/Miranda Cosgrove purgatory to the Katy/Miley/Gaga A-list on the strength of a powerhouse voice and a charmingly goofy off-mic persona. In a single week this fall, she duetted with Little Big Town on the CMA Awards, partnered with Major Lazer on Lorde’s Hunger Games soundtrack, and gyrated with the Weeknd in the “Love Me Harder” video. Girl was everywhere. But what a delight it was having this pint-sized, big-haired, dimple-cheeked, cat-eared, not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman in our lives. My Everything was a time capsule of the year in chart pop: the Max Martin-fueled saxobeat riot of “Problem” (with ubiquitous Iggy Azalea feature), the Zedd-fueled arena-EDM rocket blast of “Break Free”, the Ryan Tedder-fueled power ballad “Why Try”. There’s even a DJ Mustard nod in the “Hands on Me” breakdown, for maximum 2014-ness. Holding it all together were those octave-leaping pipes, as Ariana carried on the vintage Mariah/Xtina tradition of sharp, streetwise divadom. —Amy Phillips

Faith in Strangers begins with a series of slow, mournful foghorn blasts that faintly resembles Seefeel’s great 1995 album Succour, but the sound may as well have come from light years away. It sounds like the intergalactic equivalent of whale song—the indecipherable cries of beings that are beyond us in every sense. Whether sloughing off creaky music-of-the-spheres drones or rubbing your face in filthy, overdriven drum and bass—less breakbeat science than breakbeat slagheap—Stott’s latest, bleakest album has a way of making you feel very, very small. But there’s a comfort there, too, even if said comfort is just warming one’s hands with the embers of a tube amp as it overloads. —Philip Sherburne

Cult band returns after four years in hiding, signs to a new label, hires a hotshot producer, molds their unpredictable, sui generis music into four-minute pop songs, and confirms their fans’ worst fears. This is pretty much what happened to A Sunny Day in Glasgow on their wondrous fourth album Sea When Absent, but leave it to these guys to make the same old song completely unrecognizable. This wasn’t about a small group of protective devotees fretting about antiquated ideas of “selling out.” Rather, as a band with no established frontperson and no established homebase making genreless music that’s nearly impossible to pull off live, A Sunny Day in Glasgow is a pretty terrible business proposition. So when they earnestly announced their free agency late last year, the greater concern was that they couldn’t be a traditional buzz band with a traditional hit record even if they tried. We’re in luck if they can try harder than they did here; drawing as much from blaring rock and banging hip-hop as their other previous, ill-fitting tags of “shoegaze” or “dream-pop,” Sea When Absent is clear-eyed and cloudbursting, seemingly incompatible sounds best described by seemingly contradictory feelings—”incapacitating calm,” “frightening infatuation,” “aggressive joy.” You’ll never get it quite right, but calling Sea When Absent “ordinary” is the only way you’ll get it wrong. —Ian Cohen

Freddie Gibbs is a technician who folds his words into flows so neat the seams never show—and the success of talents like that often rest on the shoulders of a producer. Retro-leaning beats invite pithy “real hip-hop” barbs; hew too mainstream and you risk landing in limbo with the overqualified, underappreciated Gunplays of the industry. As a promising allegiance with Jeezy’s CTE World label blossomed and ultimately disintegrated, Gibbs charted a new course, teaming with mercurial SoCal producer/multi-instrumentalist Madlib for a slow drip of EPs over three years. Their collaborative full length, Piñata, sees the duo meeting styles halfway, Gibbs’ gruff, despairing storytelling taking flight on his producer’s woozy, stoned instrumentals. Few who’ve followed either artist could have reasonably predicted this union would form or float (Madlib barely makes rap anymore), but it did, and Piñata is a monument to the enduring magic of raw beats and bars. —Craig Jenkins

In Conflict’s title captures not only its thematic fixations but also its contradictory quality of ominous loveliness, like a lover who wields his beauty as a surgical instrument. Shimmering strings and rippling piano lines are punctuated by hollow, metallic drum beats and disintegrating synthetic rubble, sound giving way to sound like violent weather patterns dissolving into one another. Above and around, Pallett’s preternaturally smooth voice offers a narrative unity of memory, judgment, and regret, the sonorousness of its croon like a floodlight affording no sympathetic shadows in which to hide. Its omniscience feels increasingly cutting as the words and music slide from the nostalgically self-diagnostic (“a copy of The Dispossessed/ Your room a holy mess”) through the elegiacally metaphysical (“the terror of the infinite … that it will never come again is what makes our life so sweet”) to the erotically specific (“you hooked your pinkies on my jeans”—a snapshot from the best-written sex scene of 2014), like a series of windows glancing upon the irreconcilable “gap between what a man wants and what a man will receive.” In Conflict makes for endlessly uncomfortable listening not through ugliness, but through the ceaseless, yearning, searching dissatisfaction of its prettiness, an iron cage as torturous as it is intricately wrought. —Tim Finney

British producer Leon Vynehall is relatively young, but his genteel, elegant compositions are marked by a respect for the history and cultural context of his genre and an awareness of the world around him. The title of his first lengthy release, Music for the Uninvited, is a nod to the queer people of color who shaped the genesis of house music, dancing and forming communities to escape the marginalization that pervaded the rest of their lives; his production is studded with well-aged samples, voices from generations gone by speaking from beyond the void. They complement and embody songs that move in unexpected ways, percolating and building before achieving a stately grace. Vynehall’s reverence for the past doesn’t get in the way of his personality, either: he’s shaped by N64 classics and skateboarding tricks, possessed of a quiet confidence. His sense of self and regard for his ancestors form the base from which his vital, brainy music takes flight. —Jamieson Cox